Seamus Deane, 1940–2021

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Volume 29

By Kevin Whelan


Seamus Deane was born in 1940 in the Bogside in Derry, on the border between north and south. For centuries the Bogside had been a festering Catholic slum, as he himself described it:

‘The Bogside and its neighbouring streets lay flat on the floor of a narrowed valley. Above it towards Belfast rose the walls, the Protestant cathedral, the pillared statue of Governor Walker [Protestant hero of the siege of Derry in 1689], the whole apparatus of Protestant domination. History shadowed our faces. The drifting aromas of poverty were pungent and constant reminders to the inhabitants of those upper heights that class distinction had the merciful support of geography. We lived below and between.’

Deane attended St Columb’s College in Derry. The 1960s witnessed the first university-educated northern Catholics, who benefited from the 1947 Butler Act in the UK, an equivalent of the US GI Bill, which rewarded ‘British’ working-class people for their war effort by making university education more affordable through a scholarship system. A cohort of leading activists and writers emerged, including Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann, John Hume, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, who was part of that first cohort of Catholics to be able to proceed to university, earning a BA in 1961 and an MA in 1963 from Queen’s University:

‘We were the first generation to benefit from the post war educational reforms of the Labour government. My father said, “Educate yourself, I wish I had the chance. That’s the way to resist”. There was poverty, gerrymandering, discrimination, a failed political system, a great sense of isolation but no way to mobilise the anger; I felt as though I was living in a frozen sea …’

Deane completed his doctorate at Cambridge in 1966 and then taught English literature for two years at Reed College and Berkeley in the United States. He returned to Ireland to lecture at University College Dublin from 1968 to 1980. He was then appointed professor of Modern English and American Literature there but became increasingly unhappy with what he regarded as the anti-intellectualism of the university.

Deane was also a poet of distinction, with three published collections. He attended school with Seamus Heaney, shared an apartment with him when they went to Queen’s together, and he remained a close friend and mentor of ‘Famous Seamus’ over the years as his friend’s career soared. Deane himself could create memorable lines:

‘The unemployment in our bones erupted on our hands in stones.’

He told me that he quit writing poetry once he saw Heaney mature his great powers. Heaney sent Seamus all his collections before publication and got back rigorously precise commentary. Deane, highly regarded as a poet, now concentrated his energies on scholarly interests, marked by the rapid publication of Celtic revivals (1985), A short history of Irish literature (1986) and The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England (1988)—his doctoral thesis in book form.

In 1980 Deane joined Field Day, founded by the dramatist Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea. The group staged a series of impressive plays across the island in the 1980s and opened up the stale and binary commentary on Northern Ireland. Field Day cleared the intellectual space for the Peace Process.

During the early 1990s, he edited the transformative Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), as well as a six-volume edition of Joyce’s works for the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics series, a deliberate project to reclaim Joyce as an Irish writer. Deane enjoyed an international reputation: Edward Said, for example, widely regarded as the founder of post-colonialism, invited him to give the keynote lecture at a conference celebrating Said’s career at his own Columbia University.

Deane’s novel Reading in the dark appeared in 1996. It was instantly recognised as a modern classic, the most insightful novel written about the Troubles, and marked by all of Deane’s trademark intelligence, wit and sly quotations from, and allusion to, a vast range of Irish literature. Because it is written in a deceptively accessible style, the Gothic, post-modern and post-colonial thrust of this powerful novel has been insufficiently recognised. A striking feature of the post-partition generation of Northern Catholics was their silence: they felt cowed and alone, abandoned by both the British and Irish states, isolated in a new Protestant state where they did not wish to be and in which they were treated as suspect aliens. They became a silent, watchful, betrayed generation, ‘the bastard children of the Republic’ in their leader Eddie MacAteer’s striking phrase. Reading in the dark is a brilliant ‘Troubles’ novel, all the more so because Deane showed that to understand the outbreak in the 1960s you had to have an intimate understanding of the legacy of partition.

Seamus had a wickedly funny tongue, most creative when vituperative, and the weather always featured gusts of laughter when he was around. He loved a good conversation and no one ever issued so many zingers. He was a loyal friend, but absolutely rigorous in his critiques when you sought his advice or commentary. Seamus came from a large and boisterous Derry family who never took him all that seriously and kept him grounded.

His last—and magnificent—collection of essays, Small world: Ireland 1798–2018, has just been published by Cambridge University Press. While his body failed him eventually, his mind never did. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

Kevin Whelan is the Michael Smurfit Director of the Notre Dame Dublin Global Gateway.


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